The Bryson Uprising, witnessed in the flesh
Bryson DeChambeau hits his drive on the fourth hole in the third round of the RBC Heritage.
HILTON HEAD ISLAND — Like most men with oversized chests and arms, the New Bryson DeChambeau looks perpetually uncomfortable, as though his body retains a memory of the range and fluidity it once knew, and yet can’t adjust to life inside the prison bars of bulging muscle.
There is not much grace to his game now, and he’s never more rigid and confined than when he’s on the green. Contrary to perception—or at least my perception of the broader perception—he’s been an above-average putter in the 2020 season and has performed decently at the RBC Heritage this week. But the stroke is ugly, stiff and regimented, and though he must have a great deal of “feel” and “touch” to the shot, those elements are invisible to the naked eye. All you can see is a slab of a man attempting to turn into a plank, to become a thick fulcrum with no deviations ... robotic, repeatable.
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The drive is different. The drive is a thunder-slap, and the shot on which all those cumbersome muscles come unleashed and you can see the strongman give way to the athlete. It only lasts a millisecond, but there’s a whip-like quality then, and the remnants of his thinner, more graceful self find equilibrium with all that new strength. The synthesis is almost frightening. I watched in awe the first time I saw him pull out the driver on the par-5 second hole at Harbour Town Golf Links on Saturday, and I stayed in awe even though he blasted it out-of-bounds at one of the easiest holes he’d play all day.
This is why I came to Hilton Head, if I’m being honest with myself. To see DeChambeau hit that drive, and to reckon with the question of whether he’s some kind of lunatic Don Quixote, gulping down snake oil, or whether he’s about to transform the sport.
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Driving into Harbour Town, you could almost convince yourself it was a normal day. The sun shone, people in the outlying neighborhoods were out walking and riding bikes and generally looking happy. The putting green was full of players and caddies, the course employees wore their red tartans, and a quaint toy cannon overlooked the first tee. Waiting to follow DeChambeau and Webb Simpson in the day’s last group, I had a fantasy that I’d set a record for fewest people to trail the leading group in PGA Tour history; that it would be just a few of us on a lonely 18-hole odyssey.
Instead, the scene was practically teeming. At a given moment, between the TV crews, photographers, volunteers both on and off duty, a handful corporate guests, and a few mysterious others, there were 30-40 people within a 30-yard radius of the DeChambeau and Simpson. The people living in the houses lining the fairways watched from their porches and front lawns, and they invited their friends, so there was even something of a gallery. One homeowner held up a banner reading, “Welcome Back, PGA Pros. Hilton Head Welcomes You.” I hope she didn’t spend too much.
I spent Friday night wondering if I was an idiot to be here at all, and while the jury is still out on that question, I can report that it was pleasant to wander a mostly empty course and take the time to obsessively focus on DeChambeau.
The fascination here has been well-covered: He bulked up to a ludicrous degree, became something of a meme in the days leading up to the Colonial, and then came a shot away from winning despite a below-average putting week. Rory McIlroy professed to be in awe of his bombs from the tee. Suddenly, it bore asking: Was he about to change the sport? Ten years from now, would golf be populated by barrel-chested lumberjacks chopping balls 350-plus yards down the defenseless fairways of America and the globe?
He’s a man of very big ideas, and it’s not easy to tell which are transformational and which are the equivalent of “why don’t we build the entire plane out of the black box?” After six rounds, though, Project Big seemed to have some legitimacy, and it was definitely a compelling narrative.
On the first tee, standing behind the sunscreen-smeared Simpson, DeChambeau twisted his neck to the side. It’s a tic I noticed on TV that’s more noticeable in person; he seems to be trying to loosen up his levator scapulae, or relieve some tightness or pain. At times, he’ll place a hand beneath his chin to get a fuller turn, and it’s always accompanied by a grimace. He’s almost always grimacing, actually, whether he’s swinging or walking or telling his Puma-clad assistant outside the ropes to be careful where he walks. The moments of levity are over quickly:
“How do I become like you?” shouted a lawn spectator, holding a beer.
Bryson DeChambeau lines up a putt on the 18th green during the third round of the RBC Heritage.
“Work out more!” DeChambeau shouted back.
It was a hot day, and mostly a quiet day, with the chirpy rise-and-fall drone of the cicadas providing the audio. Tendrils of Spanish moss hung from the live oaks, now and then blowing to the side like a wizard’s beard with the palliative wind. DeChambeau’s gray shirt was almost soaked through long before the turn, and clung ever more tightly to the torso it could barely contain in the first place.
On the front nine, his approaches were just a little off, but he slowly fought back from the mistake on No. 2. Putts of 12 feet, 27, 21, 22, and 14 feet slid past the hole, but he made birdies from 11 feet and 18 feet, and used his length to turn the par-4 ninth into a medium-hard par 3. By the time he reached the turn, having passed the palm trees and pines and the murky waters that threatened but never proffered an alligator, he was within two shots of the lead.
But the back nine is not the same sugary meal as the front, and by missing his opportunity to go very low, he watched the field surge ahead. He was five under on six par 5s in the first two days, but ended up playing them even on Saturday, and though he finished the day at 12 under, just three shots off the lead, there are 15 players in front of him. Winning this tournament will likely require something along the lines of 64 or better.
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The thing about uprisings is that sometimes they bloom into full revolution, and sometimes they fail. The implication of what Bryson is trying here, which is nothing less than a fundamental shift in how professionals approach the sport, could go a few ways. He could get hurt or go cold, he could dominate the sport, or the results could be middling, in the sense that an extreme beef-up regimen works for him—a guy who was already one of the world’s best golfers—but doesn’t recommend itself to anyone else. We’re in the early days, and that’s what makes this so good.
DeChambeau wasn’t available after his round, but I asked Webb Simpson if he thought there might be something transformational afoot, and he didn’t laugh me out of the room.
“I think so,” Simpson said. “When a guy at this level puts on that much weight and is still able to play great and puts on that much speed, I certainly think guys are going to ask him questions and try to at least figure out how they can do something similar. ... I think that’s been the biggest surprise in a good way is how well he’s able to hit it still just as good, if not better, at this weight.”
Anticipation is always better than fulfillment, and it’s certainly better than disappointment. For now, Bryson’s wild gambit suggests future scenes we can barely imagine. Whether he knows it or not, he’s attempting to change far more than his body.